Less is more, coming to a store near you

tamrawilson shortages

Grocery Store Empty ShelvesIt was late October and there they were:  fresh cranberries in the produce department!

When it comes to cranberry sauce, I’m a purist. My mother taught me this—never settle for a can of solidified sauce with the ridges. Proper cranberry sauce is made with fresh, whole cranberries. Never that canned jellied stuff that demands to be sliced.

I don’t normally consider cranberry anything until the week before Thanksgiving. But examining the bags of the plump crimson berries the other day gave me cause for pause. The organic berries now cost $3.62 per half-pound bag.

“Shrinkflation” they call it, when vendors package a product less than its usual size, but at an equal or higher price.

I suppose the small bag of cranberries was meant to trick me into believing that the package is the same size as last year and all the other years before.

I noticed that nonorganic cranberries were $1.98 for 12 ounces. And I paused again. Weren’t the old bags 14 ounces or even 16?  

Shrinkflation has me on the lookout for packaging tricks. A blatant one came last week at a friend’s house. Her ice cream carton was a bit, shall we say, petite. I checked the fine print and sure enough. The carton contained 1.5 quarts, hardly the half gallon we’ve been accustomed to. Even if the price has remained constant, the quantity is 25 percent less.

Look around the grocery store and you’ll see a lot of examples of shrinkflation.

Meanwhile, items have been shifted to the front of the shelves so you’ll assume they’re full. They aren’t. Check the lower and extreme upper shelves. At more than one store, I’ve spotted empty boxes with store logos, lulling us into thinking that there’s plenty of stock in the store.

One of my guilty pleasures are Amy’s frozen dinners. Her Pad Thai is a favorite, as are the Indian dish, Palak Paneer. Last spring, these items cost $3.50 each. This summer they rose to $3.99. They’ve recently been hiked up to $4.58. I should’ve bought some earlier and put them in the freezer. Instead, I’m purchasing Amy’s dinners with 25 percent more money.     

Shoulda coulda woulda.

USDA statistics claim that food prices rose 3.5 percent in 2020 and will rise another 3.5 this year. I’m not sure how they’re figuring this “average.” We already know that meat, poultry, eggs and fish are up 10.5 percent this year. Bacon has risen a whopping 19 percent.

At least one New York City supermarket chain told Fox Business channel that food prices will increase as much as 10 percent over the next two months.

Blame the price increases on labor issues, COVID-19, bad weather, the lack of transportation, i.e. truckers. The rise in packaging costs or scarcity of materials such as aluminum cans. At any rate, the supplies are down and demand is steady or higher—a perfect recipe for price inflation. Indeed, grocery prices have surged across many food categories, if you can find what you’re looking for.

Noticed any empty shelves lately?

Yep, so have I.  

I tell myself this is how it must’ve been during World War II, the mother of all crises. I heard first-hand accounts of wartime rationing and shortages growing up, but a person would have to be 80 or older to actually remember those home front hardships. That eliminates most of us.

Still, you would have to have been comatose for the past few months not to see price escalation at the supermarket. I’ve done my share of moaning about rising grocery prices while some say to relax. What’s there to worry about?

It’s a naive question. Inflation is, in fact, a tax on the poor and the middle class because when companies encounter higher wholesale prices, they pass those increases along to consumers. It’s either do that or go broke.

Today’s food situation is uncharted territory for most of us. Most of us have led a blessed life being able to walk into a store and find what we need. True, I’m able to afford the food I need, but I’m not everybody. How are these prices going to affect disabled people on fixed incomes? School lunch programs? The working poor? Military families struggling to make ends meet?

Shrinking packages are only a symptom of a greater problem. Everything is fine until it isn’t.

Right now, all bets are off.